People Come First
Born in the year 1900, Alice Neel was an assiduous chronicler of the twentieth century at the same time that she was one of its standard-bearers, resolutely painting people even as other art historical movements fell in and out of favor. A sprawling, dozen-gallery show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “People Come First” contains approximately a hundred paintings, drawings, and watercolor works, and demonstrates the late artist's commitment to capturing the zeitgeist as well as challenging the traditions of portraiture.
“Neel never had the money to rent her own studio,” co-curator Kelly Baum explains. “[Home] becomes an actor, or protagonist, in these paintings.” In Hartley on the Rocking Horse (1943), she depicts her own son as a toddler, astride a rocking horse she salvaged and painted herself. (In a nod to Velázquez, Neel herself can be seen in the corner, painting that very picture.) Though best-known for her portraits—the artist preferred the term “pictures of people”—Neel imparted a humanist quality even to inanimate objects: a vase, a table leg, cornices on a building.
“As quite a nonconformist herself, Neel was particularly drawn to unusual subjects,” co-curator Randall Griffey adds. This is evident even in her early works, such as Untitled (Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom) (1935), a pencil drawing which represents a strikingly early foray into feminist subject matter, depicting Neel herself urinating into the toilet as her partner does so simultaneously into the sink. She was unflinching in depictions of poverty and illness: in Well Baby Clinic (1928-9), amidst a scene of squalling and unattended infants, one wan woman clutches a baby with a pale-blue and overly large head while another bears a manic, cartoonish grimace.
As a white woman artist, Neel’s nonconformity extended also into depicting Black and Latinx subjects, largely drawn from the East Harlem neighborhood where she lived for a quarter century. “New York was certainly Neel’s greatest muse and her greatest subject,” Griffey says. Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959), for instance, is notable for its subjects’ seeming comfort with their portraitist—Neel was known to keep up an endless stream of chatter with her sitters—even to the point of boredom: one of the girls cups her chin in her hand, leaning against one crossed leg. But the names of the sitters are notably absent—as they are in The Black Boys (1967) or Puerto Rican Girl on Chair (1949)—while her white subjects were usually granted their own names.
Neel was also a studious attendant of art history. One gallery of the exhibition makes a compelling case for its influence on her by pairing her works with those of Vincent Van Gogh, Jacob Lawrence, Mary Cassatt, and others. Yet, Baum says, “Neel was always reluctant to admit to having been influenced by another artist,” perhaps a product of being a woman in the twentieth century, which forced her to fight for every ounce of credit. But even when she operated within an art historical tradition, she bucked it. Although she was shy about self-portraiture, Neel painted one of her most iconic works late in life, nude, at the age of eighty. In Self-Portrait (1980) the flesh of her breasts, jowls, and even the skin over her knee sags—but one foot is tilted, the heel lifted and toes spread, the image of deep contemplation as well as alertness, as if ready to spring toward the canvas at any second. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Alice Neel (American, 1900–1984), Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd, 1970. Oil on canvas, 60 × 41 7/8 inches. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund © The Estate of Alice Neel.